Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday announced amendments to her two-year, $8 billion budget proposal that would significantly boost the state’s child protective services system, adding 33 caseworkers to a system under scrutiny after the high-profile deaths of two children.

Ramping up the number of caseworkers and support staff would be the most sweeping investment yet in the Office of Child and Family Services – charged with protecting Maine’s most vulnerable children – since the deaths of the girls in late 2017 and early 2018.

Mills’ proposal is “critical” to making substantial reforms to the system, said Melissa Hackett, policy and communications associate for the Maine Children’s Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for children’s issues.

Gov. Janet Mills proposed adding money to the state budget to cover the hiring of caseworkers in the state’s child protection system. Sun Journal file photo/Steve Collins

“The caseworkers have been overburdened, and I think the problem requires a big initial push,” Hackett said.

The changes proposed Tuesday would cost more than $65.5 million, including $11 million set aside for the Office of Child and Family Services. The Mills administration also earmarked funding for the state’s mental health services system and to battle the state’s the opioid crisis.

“This change package prioritizes pressing investments needed to protect children’s safety, to repair crumbling schools, to pay back the previous administration’s debt, and to save money in the event of an economic downturn,” Mills, a Democrat, said in a statement. “These changes address critical needs, reflect decisions made in the first four months, and build on my pragmatic budget proposal to deliver a solid economic foundation and the initiatives Maine people want and our state needs. I look forward to working with lawmakers as the budget process begins in earnest.”

The money to pay for the amendments would come from transferring funding from other accounts and from larger than expected incoming revenues. The Maine Revenue Forecasting Committee has projected the state will receive an additional $120.5 million in general fund revenue, according to the statement.

John Bott, spokesman for minority House Republicans, criticized the proposal.

“It is a short-range movement of money, that does not address the long-range problem of taxpayer sustainability. It also does not help fix the roads or address workforce development needs,” Bott said in a statement.

The state’s system for protecting children has come under fire since two young girls died from apparent abuse in high-profile cases.

Shawna Gatto of Wiscasset was found guilty last month of depraved indifference murder in the death of 4-year-old Kendall Chick, who lived in Gatto’s home. Marissa Kennedy, a 10-year-old Stockton Springs girl, died after what prosecutors say was months of beatings and sexual abuse. Sharon Carrillo, the girl’s mother, and Julio Carrillo, her stepfather, have been charged with her murder.

Caseworkers in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services have told the Press Herald they feel overwhelmed by the number of cases that they have to manage. The budget amendments, if approved by the Legislature, would add 33 caseworkers, six caseworker supervisors and four caseworker aides. It would also add 13 intake workers and six background check staff to DHHS. That’s on top of 16 caseworkers approved by the Legislature in 2018. In all, that represents about a 20 percent increase in caseworker staff.

Jackie Farwell, DHHS spokeswoman, said the caseworker boost is based on recommendations made by a consulting group.

Other budget amendments include: $5.5 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine to tackle the state’s opioid crisis, including funding for school and community-based prevention programs; $14 million to add 48 staff for mental health services for the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center’s new 18-bed facility in Bangor; $20 million in one-time revenue for the School Revolving Renovation Fund to fix aging schools; and $15 million in one-time revenue to pay federal debts resulting from the decertification of Riverview Psychiatric Center.

The LePage administration continued to use federal money to pay for Riverview’s operations from 2013 to 2018, despite being prohibiting from doing so because Riverview was not meeting federal standards for patient care. The state now has to pay back the federal government about $80 million. The state recertified Riverview in February.

“This represents a needed down payment toward the safety of Maine children, an investment in our mental health system, and a fresh start for Riverview Psychiatric Center,” said Jeanne Lambrew, DHHS commissioner, in a statement. “Improving the health and well-being of Maine people must remain at the forefront throughout the budget process, and we appreciate the Legislature’s thoughtful consideration of this proposal.”

Jenna Mehnert, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine, said the new facility at Dorothea Dix will help expand the state’s mental health services capacity and should result in fewer mentally ill people spending time in jail.

“I am particularly supportive of having individuals with mental health issues who need to be assessed, to have them served outside of the jails,” Mehnert said.

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